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The Old Wives' Tale

3.80  ·  Rating Details  ·  3,013 Ratings  ·  171 Reviews
The Old Wives’ Tale is a novel by Arnold Bennett, first published in 1908. It deals with the lives of two very different sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, following their stories from their youth, working in their mother’s draper’s shop, into old age. It is generally regarded as one of Bennett’s finest works. It covers a period of about 70 years from roughly 1840 to 19 ...more
Paperback, 576 pages
Published May 1st 1998 by NTC/Contemporary Publishing Company (first published 1908)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Cecily
A simple concept of parallels and contrasts in the lives of sisters, carefully told with gentle irony. It starts in 1864 when Constance and Sophia are 16 and 15 respectively and follows them to the end of their lives. Book 1 covers their teenage years together above and in a draper’s shop in a small town in the Staffordshire Potteries (central England). Book 2 is in the same location, but focuses on Constance. Book 3 is set in Paris during great political upheaval and war, and is about Sophia. I ...more
Paul Bryant
Jul 12, 2012 Paul Bryant rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novels
I recall intensely that The Old Wives' Tale had me weeping silently into my mug of tea on more than one occasion as I followed raptly the ordinary tedious lives of two more than a little irritating women from youth to addled toothlessness, whence are we all doomed, although, one hopes, these days, with more humane dentistry and superior bridgework. Ah, humanity! Is it ever thus? Yes, thus it was, thus it is, and thus is to be. Here is a symphony of domesticity, panopticon of disappointment, spou ...more
Janet
A testament to the power and influence of Goodreads is the discovery of this gem which otherwise would have escaped my notice.

Bennett grabbed me with the second sentence of his preface and never let go for a moment. In many ways this 5 page preface is more compelling than the actual novel. Here he relates an anecdote of sitting in a favorite cafe when an old woman comes in talking to herself and dropping her parcels. She is the subject of immediate ridicule by the two waitresses, one old enough
...more
Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly
He saw a fat, old, ridiculous, shapeless woman in a restaurant. Then he imagined her once as a vivacious young girl, perhaps pretty when she was a young woman, had some love affairs, married, brought forth children, and now she's like that, most likely alone and forgotten. For a long while he thought of writing a story about an old woman like her. When he finally got himself into writing it, he thought it would be more challenging to write about two of them, so Arnold Bennett made them sisters-- ...more
Sketchbook
May 02, 2013 Sketchbook rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: currently
2 sisters, 2 separate lives : "I have been through too much, I cannot stand it." Yes, we're only concerned with our paltry selves, so why do some whine, Why did this novel not mention this or that war or crisis. Why? Cos outside events never matter . In his preface Bennett notes that ordinary people are never aware of history's dramatic events.

And talented Cyril, the child of one sis : so cute, so spoiled. At 33, his "habits were industrious as ever. He seldom spoke of his plans and never of h
...more
Rob Roy
Jan 12, 2012 Rob Roy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The story of two sisters moving through life to their twilight years. Each faces life's tribulations, and works her way through it, but it is in the end, where they reflect back, that the brilliance of this book comes out. What is life, what contributions and differences do we make, and can we adapt, or should we? These questions permeate the prose of Bennett. One of the better books I have ever read. Possibly, being in my 60's it really speaks to me.
Melinda
Sep 14, 2009 Melinda rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: best-of-2009
I LOVED THIS BOOK! First published in 1908, it read like a modern-day novel - not tedious and wordy like many Victorian novels. The author painted such vivid characters, scenery and narrative that it was very easy to get swept up in the storyline. Covering a span of 50 years the story is about two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, following their lives from youth into old age. The book is broken down into four "books": Book 1 is about the teen-aged girls and their mother; Book 2 is a chronic ...more
C.S. Burrough
Aug 26, 2014 C.S. Burrough rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
First published in 1908, this is considered one of Bennett's finest works. His breathtaking detail and description is something to behold.

The story begins around 1840 in the Stafforshire pottery town of Burslem, where young sisters Constance and Sophia Baines work in their parents' draper's shop. They are initially close but contrastingly different girls, Sophie the younger considered incorrigible by the more proper Constance. As they grow up the girls drift, mentally and geographically, apart.
...more
Tony
Jul 04, 2012 Tony rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
THE OLD WIVES’ TALE. (1908). Arnold Bemmett. ****.
I have a pile of books “to be read” that comprise my “guilt” pile. They are usually from the group known as classics, and have small print, and are exceedingly long. I put off reading any of them until my guilt level exceeds my capability of enduring it. That’s how I picked up this novel by Bennett. I’ve known for years that this was considered his best work, and had even broken myself into his style by reading one of shorter works first, now I’
...more
Diana
Dec 08, 2013 Diana rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Constance and Sophia are two sisters born into the narrow but secure world of their parents' drapery business in the Potteries. The Old Wives' Tale is the story of their lives from girlhood to old age and it is a remarkable masterpiece.
The life experiences of the two are vastly different, yet in essence they end up living the same life. As products of a hard-working, respectable trading class, their values are with them for life. Bennett puts the women centre stage, and male characters are perip
...more
Elizabeth (Alaska)
The start of this is very slow with much description. I wondered if I'd started another which would be a slog. Not a bit of it, I'm happy to report. Primarily characterization with some small plot to go with it, it is no wonder this is on both Bloom's Western Canon and Boxall's 1001 Books - and maybe other lists, too.

Bennett gives us the inspiration for his story in a preface to the edition I read, wherein he states that he frequented a certain restaurant in Paris. ... an old woman came into the
...more
Rupert Smith
Nov 05, 2013 Rupert Smith rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I consider Arnold Bennett to be the most underrated of all English novelists, and The Old Wives’ Tale to be one of the great undiscovered (or ‘underdiscovered’) masterpieces of twentieth century literature. Bennett was despised by the Bloomsbury group, particularly Virginia Woolf, who thought him conservative and vulgar; his popularity made him a figure of envy and ridicule amongst the Modernists. Obviously he’s got much more in common with Trollope, Thackeray and Dickens than he does with Joyce ...more
Sylvester
What did I like about this book? It wasn't really exciting, or novel, nor were the characters that compelling - and yet, it was thoroughly good. The preface helped me to like it, I admit. Bennett writes about seeing two older women in a restaurant and feeling curious about what made them so different and yet brought them to the same place - and wanting for a long time to explore that idea in his writing. So this novel is really focused on the idea that small everyday choices build upon each othe ...more
John
Nov 29, 2011 John rated it it was ok
I have finally finished this thing. So relieved. I really need to quit subjecting myself to the nauseum that is Victorian novels. Absolutely nothing happens in this book with the exception of the sections dealing with the youngest Baines daughter, Sophia.

Sophia is the only one in the family that actually lived. She left the tiny town of Bursley for, in my opinion, stupid reasons, but she left. And she lived a life worthy of talking about. Constance, the elder sister, sat around, got fat and comp
...more
Bob
Nov 30, 2009 Bob rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
With one exception, all of Arnold Bennett's fiction was published in the couple of decades following the death of Queen Victoria, yet in tone it is much more Victorian than Edwardian (certainly none of your post-Eliot modernism can be detected at all). In his stated attempt to emulate Flaubert, Zola and other French realists, he has a few startling passages (for example, an attempt to represent the pains of giving birth) that one is hard put to imagine in Elizabeth Gaskell or even the Brontes.
Fo
...more
Sarah
I enjoyed this immensly! The story tells the tale of Constance and Sophia Baines' lives from girlhood to death at the end of the 19th century. They were, perhaps, from today's point of view, not very exceptional lives - especially Constance's - but it is so well written and Bennett has such a delightful way of describing everything that you don't really notice this! His main characters have great depth, and the narratve is wonderfully tongue in cheek. My enjoyment was no doubt increased by the f ...more
Ellie
Jan 11, 2011 Ellie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Arnold Bennett is one of the great under-read authors ever. His prose is shining-carved out of marble each word beautiful resonating off the surrounding ones. But really-his craft is so pure and every word counts. Of course, it's good his writing is so unsentimental because it keeps his stories from being unbearable sad (instead of just barely bearably painful). This is the book I would recommend people begin with if they don't know Bennett; I found it the most accessible with even a little humo ...more
Priti
Apr 09, 2012 Priti rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: must-read-again
The Old Wives' Tale Arnold Bennett
This book is a masterpiece of the art of story telling. Its a simple linear narrative but with amazing character study. How well Mr Bennett understood human nature! The book is interesting, amusing, sad and very touching..its excellent and highly recommended.
David Hambling
Oct 20, 2015 David Hambling rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

A wonderful book. No summary can do it justice -- on the surface it is so utterly mundane, and yet Bennett packs entire lives into a few pages, sketches characters deftly and makes it all so entirely believable. Storytelling does not get any more polished than this.
Marion James
Jan 13, 2016 Marion James rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The Old Wives' Tale is a superb story still as readable and enjoyable as ever. After having read this for my English Lit. A level many years ago and 2nd reading did not disappoint. Telling the story of the Baines sisters the quiet, shy, retiring Constance and defiant, romantic Sophia over the course of nearly half a century. This book will grab you and your will always remember the story of the defiant Sophia.
Missy
Jun 13, 2012 Missy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I found myself staying up hours past my bedtime completely lost in this book. Regardless of the time period of the story the attitudes and concerns of the characters are timeless. If you find it doesn't draw you in then I suggest you put it down and read it again when you are twenty years older. Many of the sentiments and situations may make more sense after you have lived a bit longer!
Peter Ellwood
Apr 20, 2015 Peter Ellwood rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An astonishing, perfect piece of work.

I’ve occasionally recognised, over the years, the not-so deep fact that the way one perceives the quality of a book can in fact depend on one’s own mood at the time. I remember once reading Bleak House as part of my student studies and I read it in 100 page chunks: well, it remains one of my all-time favourite books, a complete masterpiece; but pages 301-400 were quite poor…

Maybe I happened to be in the right, receptive sort of mood here too. Who cares – tr
...more
Terence Carlisle
One of the finest novels I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Exquisite pathos and wry humour take this tale of two very ordinary sisters in a provincial English town to the heights of the extraordinary.
Claude
I just loved this book and really enjoyed the way it was read by Andy Minter.
Veronica
Feb 20, 2012 Veronica rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Veronica by: Modern Library's 100 Best Novels
Two sisters, quite dissimilar, embark upon their lives and part as very young ladies and reunite as much older women. The Old Wives’ Tale was reportedly based on Bennett’s observations of an elderly woman dining alone in Paris. He believed her peculiar behavior invited ridicule and so wondered at her life as a young woman.

Set in Burslem and Paris beginning near the mid 1800′s through the turn of the century, we meet the appropriately named Baines sisters; sophisticated Sophia and constant Consta
...more
carl  theaker
Apr 30, 2010 carl theaker rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition


A momentary self-congrats: with this novel, I finished the Modern Library top 100.
Only took me about 5 years, but I did it.

This novel was a worthy finale being quite a tome, 620 pages, and since written
in the early 1900s, was worried it might be difficult.

However it was a pleasant read, the story of the Baines family, primarily
Constance and Sophia from their teens through old age and death. Starting
around 1860, you get a look at the working class districts of England,
a view of middle class life
...more
Al
Dec 20, 2013 Al rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Do not be put off by the facts that a) you may not have heard of this book, b) the title is vaguely off-putting, and c) it was first published in 1908. It is a wonderful book. The best way for me to succinctly describe it is to quote from John Wain's excellent introduction to the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition:
"The Old Wives' Tale has three claims to fame. It is one of the most successful attempts, if not *the* most successful, to rival in English the achievement of the French rea
...more
Daryl
In the author's own preface to the edition I read (which I read when I was about 2/3 through the book), he mentions that the public reaction to the book when first published was that it was "honest but dull, and that when it wasn't dull it had a regrettable tendency to facetiousness." Bennett doesn't dispute this idea; in fact, he says it confirms an opinion held by someone who's judgement he trusted. Though he adds that over time, the reception of the book became "less and less frigid." Not too ...more
Laura
Nov 14, 2011 Laura rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
This book is the small details in life. Two sisters - of a mercantile family - lead very different lives. One stays in Bursley her whole life. And the other one scandalously elopes with a less than honorable traveling salesman. Late in life the two sisters reunite. Sophia reflects on her leaving and returning to Bursley Square:

Her return was accepted with indifference. Her escapade of thirty years ago entirely lost its dramatic quality. Many people indeed never heard that she had run away from
...more
James
Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale is a good, but not great, novel about the lives led by two women from a small town in England. While he writes with both a high degree of realism and historical accuracy there are moments, especially in the opening chapters, that test the reader's patience. His devotion to the quotidian details of everyday life does not always rise to the level of interest, even when presented well by a master prose stylist. Our Lincoln Park Book Group discussed this novel th ...more
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3314
Enoch Arnold Bennett (always known as Arnold Bennett) was one of the most remarkable literary figures of his time, a product of the English Potteries that he made famous as the Five Towns. Yet he could hardly wait to escape his home town, and he did so by the sheer force of his ambition to succeed as an author. In his time he turned his hand to every kind of writing, but he will be remembered for ...more
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“The manner of his life was of no importance. What affected her was that he had once been young. That he had grown old, and was now dead. That was all. Youth and vigour had come to that. Youth and vigour always came to that. Everything came to that.” 5 likes
“. . . humanity walks ever on a thin crust over terrific abysses.” 4 likes
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